29 January 2013

Anglican Studies (full-time) 4.2: Contextual understandings (2): art, music and culture in the development of Anglicanism

The Canticles, sung by great cathedral choirs, provide the first introduction for many to the riches of Anglican spirituality and creativity

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Tuesdays: 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., The Jenkins Room.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013, 3 p.m.:

4.2: Contextual understandings (2): art, music and culture in the development of Anglicanism.


The Elizabethan Reformation was a major factor in the cultural development of these islands. The Collects of Thomas Cranmer and the literary style of his collects, the language of the King James Version of the Bible, edited by Lancelot Andrewes, and the writings of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker, contributed to the development and character of the English language at the same time as Shakespeare was writing his plays and sonnets.

Later, Jeremy Taylor stood out among the Caroline Divines for his contribution to English literature. Coleridge placed him among the four great geniuses of English literature, alongside Shakespeare, Bacon and Milton.

The period we have been looking at was a time of great cultural ferment in these islands, and Anglican religious thought played a major role in the production of great works of literature, including poetry, grand works of architecture and outstanding musical compositions.

Poets and Priests

John Donne ... “... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Among the foremost literary giants of the time was the poet and priest, John Donne (1572-1631), who was Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Donne is a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period, his works are notable for their realistic and sensual style, and they include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons.

Donne’s poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially when he is compared with his contemporaries. His masculine, ingenious style is characterised by abrupt openings, paradoxes, dislocations, argumentative structure, and “conceits” – images that yoke things seemingly unlike.

These features, combined with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax, and his tough eloquence were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques.

His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of contemporary English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry was the idea of true religion, which he spent much time considering and theorising. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic poems and love poems, and is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.

Donne came from a Catholic family – his mother was a great-niece of Thomas More – and he was unable to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge because he could not take the Oath of Supremacy. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne Moore with whom he had 12 children. He was an MP in 1601 and in 1614, and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615, not because he wanted to but because King James I persistently ordered it. Eventually, the University of Cambridge made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1618, and he was appointed the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1621. He died ten years later on 31 March 1631, and is buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

John Donne is best remembered today for his lines:

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.
— John Donne, Meditation XVII

George Herbert ... Prayer, the Church’s banquet

In the immediate post-Elizabethan age, Anglican spiritual writers included country parsons such as George Herbert (1593-1633), who is remembered for his careful pastoral nurturing of his parish and his parishioners, and for his poetry, much of which has been adapted as hymns. His spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence. His poetry is constantly evident of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ. Richard Baxter later said of him that Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes a God and as one who whose business in this world is most with God.

Herbert was born into an artistic and wealthy family, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and – like John Donne – he too was an MP before he was ordained priest. In 1630, by then in his late 30s, Herbert gave up his political and courtly ambitions and was ordained priest. He spent the rest of his life as Rector of the little Wiltshire country parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury.

Herbert was noted for his unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. His contemporary poet, Henry Vaughan, said he was “a most glorious saint and seer.” Charles Cotton described him as a “soul composed of harmonies.”

Throughout his life, Herbert wrote religious poems characterised by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the metaphysical school of poets.

In a letter to Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, Herbert said of his writings: “They are a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master.”

Some of Herbert’s poems have endured as hymns, including King of Glory, King of Peace, Let All the World in Every Corner Sing Teach me, my God and King.

In his poem Obedience, George Herbert wrote:

O let thy sacred will
All thy delight in me fulfil!
Let me not think an action mine own way.
But as thy love shall sway,
Refining up the rudder to thy skill.

For George Herbert, prayer is concerned not only with things heavenly, but also with the earthly. In his poem Prayer he writes:

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

In this poem, Herbert is saying that in prayer it is possible to be transported, even if momentarily, to another realm. “Angel’s age,” “the milky way,” and a “tune beyond the stars” suggest that prayer touches the infinite. The poem concludes with “something understood” – a profound but elusive encounter with the mysterious otherness of God.

Herbert was close to Nicholas Ferrar and the Community of Little Gidding, which showed that prayer, community life, and a life of discipleship and service ought to be inter-woven.

Having mentioned Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), perhaps I should also refer to him as an example from the time of a lay Anglican who wrote mystical poetry too. Here his is an example of an especially beautiful fragment of one of his poems, The World:

I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright,
And round beneath it time in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved in which the world
And all her train were hurled.

Izaak Walton ... biographer of Donne, Hooker and Herbert

Another lay writer worth noting was Izaak Walton (1593-1683), best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, but of interest to us as the biographer of many of the key Anglican bishops and theologians of that time.

As a young man living in London, Walton befriended John Donne, who was then Vicar of the parish of Saint Dunstan’s. Walton also married into interesting Church circles: his first wife, Rachel Floud, was a great-great-niece of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, while his second wife, Anne Ken, was a half-sister of Thomas Ken, later bishop of Bath and Wells, and then a leading Nonjuror.

Walton’s best known work in The Compleat Angler, which was first published in 1653, although he continued to add to it for a quarter of a century, so that is grew from 13 chapters to 21.

The full title of his book of short biographies is Lives of John Donne, Henry Wotton, Rich’d Hooker, George Herbert, &c. Walton had already contributed an Elegy to the 1633 edition of Donne’s poems, and he completed and published his biography of Donne in 1640. His biography of Sir Henry Wotton was published in 1651, his life of Richard Hooker in 1662, that of George Herbert in 1670, and that of Bishop Richard Sanderson in 1678. Three of these subjects at least – Donne, Wotton and Herbert – were anglers.

John Milton, the poet of mid-17th century England

The Caroline age was also a period of great literary works by the heirs of the Puritan revolution. John Milton (1608-1674), who had been a radical Presbyterian, then an Independent, and a critic of Cromwell, was blind by the time his Paradise Lost was published in 1667.

At the Caroline restoration in 1660, John Bunyan (1628-1688) was imprisoned for his preaching, and remained in jail almost continuously until 1672. He was jailed again in 1677, and died in 1688 as the persecution of dissenters was coming to an end. In jail he wrote his best-known works, Grace Abounding (1666) and Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

The poet John Dryden (1631-1700) had been brought up as a Puritan and had served under Cromwell, but welcomed the restoration of Charles II and in 1670 was appointed poet laureate and royal historiographer. He defended the biblical scholar Richard Simon (1638-1712), generally regarded as the founder of Old Testament criticism, and his work on the Old Testament as compatible with Anglican freedom in his Religio Laici (1682), depicting Anglicanism as providing a middle way between Rome and fanaticism.

After James II’s accession, Dryden became a Roman Catholic, defending his new church as the “milk white hind” in the allegorical Hind and the Panther (1687).

Rembrandt drew on Biblical imagery and scenes for much of his work

Art and architecture

Culturally, we must remember that Rembrandt was still painting in Amsterdam, drawing on many Biblical scenes. But this was also the age of baroque, which left its mark on church music, church architecture, and the paintings and sculptures in churches throughout Europe, particularly in France, Spain and Italy.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London ... built a century after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the crowning glory of Christopher Wren’s work in the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Baroque became the style of the Counter-Reformation and one of its finest expressions is in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, completed in 1655. In England, the crowning glory of architecture for Anglicans was in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, designed by Christopher Wren. Building began in 1675, 20 years after Saint Peter’s was completed, but Wren’s real gems are the many smaller churches he built in London after the Great Fire of 1666.

Anglican music and composers

The Canticles, sung by great cathedral choirs, often provide the first introduction for many to the riches of Anglican spirituality

The Canticles and the Psalms are traditional parts of Anglican spirituality, and the use of the canticles in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is a deeply formative part and parcel of Anglican liturgy, Anglican tradition, and Anglican spirituality.

The beauty of the choral tradition that has been built up around the canticles, including, in particular, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis within Evening Prayer, has attracted many to Anglicanism. As Douglas Galbraith of Bangor University has written, Choral Evensong is, undoubtedly, one of Anglicanism’s greatest cultural and spiritual gifts to the whole Church. Thomas Cranmer’s combination of Vespers and Compline created a pattern that allows for musical embellishment without overly increasing the length of the office.

Galbraith says: “Its script is light enough to be endlessly renewed by a variety of musical idiom, a form of worship in which it is as involving to be a listener as it is to be an active participant.”

Let me just briefly introduce you to some of the wonderful and outstanding Anglican composers, from those who worked at the beginning of the Anglican Reformation, to those who were contemporaries of the Caroline Divines:

Christ Church, Oxford … John Taverner was the first Organist and Master of the Choristers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Taverner (ca 1490-1545) is regarded as the most important English composer of his era. In 1526, Taverner became the first Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford, the college founded a year earlier by Cardinal Wolsey. In 1528, he was reprimanded for his links with Lutherans, but escaped punishment for being “but a musician.” When Wolsey fell from favour, Taverner left Christ Church, he appears to have held no further musical appointments, and may have ceased composing.

Most of Taverner’s music is vocal, and includes masses, Magnificats and motets, mainly from the 1520s. His best-known motet is Dum Transisset Sabbatum. His best known Mass, The Westron Wynde Mass, is based on the melody of a popular love song, bringing the mystery of the Mass into touch with the realities of life. It is unusual for the period because the theme tune appears in each of the four parts at different times. Mediaeval music comes of age in this mature and ingenious Mass setting. Commonly his masses are designed so that each of the four sections (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei) are about the same length, often achieved by putting the same number of repetitions of the thematic material in each.

Thomas Sternhold (1500–1549), who may have known Taverner at Christ Church, Oxford, was a courtier and the principal author of the first English metrical version of the Psalms, originally attached to The Book of Common Prayer as augmented by John Hopkins. The Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter remained the definitive psalter for 140 years, and continued in general use until the publication in 1698 of the New Version of the Psalms of David.

Thomas Tallis (ca 1505-1585) occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of England’s early composers.

Throughout his service to successive Tudor monarchs as organist and composer, Tallis avoided the religious controversies of the day. He was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English, although it is said that like William Byrd he remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic.”

John Merbecke (ca.1510-ca1585) was a theological writer and musician who produced a standard setting of Anglican liturgy. He is also known for his setting of the Eucharist, Missa per arma justitiae.

Merbecke began his career as a boy chorister at Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, and was an organist there from about 1541. Two years later he was convicted with four others of heresy and sentenced to the stake, but received a pardon after the intervention of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.

In 1550, Merbecke published his Booke of Common Praier Noted, a one-syllable, one-note setting for all parts of The Book of Common Prayer (1549). He set the liturgy to semi-rhythmical melodies partly adapted from Gregorian chant. However, his work became obsolete when The Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1552, but was rediscovered in the 19th century, and adaptations for the 1662 liturgy are still in use throughout Anglicanism. He died in 1585, while he was probably still organist at Windsor.

William Byrd (1539/1540-1623), who was the outstanding composer of his generation, wrote in many of the forms then current in England, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard and consort music. The Reformers, “for the comforting of such as delight in music,” had called for “modest and distinct song” so that “the prayers ... be plainly understood.” Byrd made the regulations work for him in his Ave Verum Corpus (1605), his best-known single work.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was another leading composer of the late Tudor and early Jacobean period. One of the most versatile composers of his time, he wrote many keyboard works, around 30 fantasias for viols, a number of madrigals, and many popular verse anthems. His choral music is distinguished by his complete mastery of counterpoint, combined with his wonderful gift for melody. Perhaps his best-known verse anthem is This is the record of John, which sets an Advent text for solo countertenor or tenor, alternating with full chorus.

At the end of this period we find Henry Purcell (1659-1695), whose best-known anthem is They that go down to the sea in ships, written in gratitude for Charles II’s escape from a shipwreck, and drawing on verses from the Psalms in the form of an anthem. Two of his finest anthems, I was glad and My heart is inditing, were written for the coronation of King James II. Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate Deo were written for Saint Cecilia’s Day, 1693, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment, and this work was then annually performed at Saint Paul’s Cathedral until 1712. He is buried close to the organ in Westminster Abbey.

Two weeks’ time (12 February 2013):

The Church of Ireland from the Penal Laws to Disestablishment

5.2: Understanding sectarianism and transforming societies

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a seminar on 29 January 2013 as part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

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